Julia Bryan-Wilson’s book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era explores the politicization of artistic labor in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly within the Art Workers’ Coalition and the New York Art Strike. Focusing on Carl Andre, Lucy Lippard, Robert Morris, and Hans Haacke, Bryan-Wilson investigates how artists and writers embraced a polemical identification of themselves as workers in relation to the social movements of the New Left. The following brief excerpt from the introductory chapter outlines some of the historical background and relevant theoretical influences that converged in the late 1960s to make the term “art worker” both viable as an activist identity, but also somewhat contradictory as a political formation.
How is the making of a sculpture any different from the making of some other kind of commodity? At the heart of this question lie several critical issues: the division of labor under capitalism, the importance of skill or techne, the psychic rewards of making, the weight of aesthetic judgments, and the perpetually unfixed nature of the artist’s professional status since roughly the fifteenth century. The history of Western art is marked by the unstable distinction between artistic, “creative” production and the economics of “true” labor. The social value of making art has been in flux since the Renaissance, when the “author” of a work as a concept was born. The transition of art making from a mere manual occupation to an inspired vocation has been the subject of much literature, including Michael Baxandall’s key work on the separation of art from craft in the Renaissance and artists’ assumption of a specialized class position.1 Objects such as paintings were no longer the products of anonymous craftsmen but the singular creations of named individuals, and artists’ earnings began to rise along with their status.
In the 1960s art workers theorized how modes of human making are affected by specific economic strictures, the aestheticization of experience, and the production of sensibilities.2 What makes the coherence of the phrase art worker challenging—even oxymoronic—is that under capitalism art also functions as the “outside,” or other, to labor: a non-utilitarian, nonproductive activity against which mundane work is defined, a leisure-time pursuit of self-expression, or a utopian alternative to the deadening effects of capitalism. While his writings on the matter vary over time and are by no means unified, Karl Marx’s contributions to this subject have been among the most influential.3 He makes many explicit connections between artistic making and labor, writing, for instance, “A writer is a productive laborer in so far as he produces ideas, but in so far as he enriches the publisher who publishes his works, he is a wage laborer for the capitalist.”4 Because of the erosion of patronage models, the artist is often more subjected to the tastes of the market and its deadening effects than other wage laborers are. This casts art not as “play” or non-work but as another part of the capitalist division of labor. Yet Marx holds out the hope for expression or production beyond the market that might be unalienated, if still requiring skill: “Really free labor, the composing of music for example, is at the same time damned serious and demands the greatest effort.”5
“Really free labor, the composing of music for example, is at the same time damned serious and demands the greatest effort.”
Drawing on Marx’s theoretical work, and prompted by a desire to make art legitimate, necessary, and meaningful, artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tried to erode the distinction between art and labor by insisting that their actions, and the products of those actions, were indeed work. These efforts were often specifically socialist, even as their products ranged from high-priced luxury goods (as in the utopian craftsmanship model of William Morris) to laboratory experiments and functional design (as in the productivist art undertaken in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution).6 The Mexican muralists of the 1920s identified themselves as workers, founding the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors in 1922 and attempting to create new iconographies that would be legible to peasants and the working class.7 (In contrast to the muralists’ depictions of greedy industrialists and heroic laborers, however, the art workers of the late 1960s and early 1970s did not, by and large, take a populist stance or insist that their art itself was “for the workers.”)
In the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, artists formed revolutionary cultural organizations in attempts to “forge links between them and the proletariat,” as Andrew Hemingway has phrased it.8 Hemingway’s nuanced account provides documentation of the ideological, economic, and social factors that led to the formation of the Artists’ Union in 1933. Having taken part in the state-funded projects of the Works Progress Administration, the artists in the Artists’ Union were literally wage laborers, and on that ground they agitated for workers’ rights and demanded better pay. “Every artist an organized artist,” proclaimed the posters at a 1935 rally, featuring their signature logo in which an upraised fist wielding a paintbrush is reminiscent of the Soviet hammer and sickle. The Artists’ Union produced a newsletter (the Art Front), went on strike, and organized themselves like the industrial unions that were increasingly influential. In 1938 they voted to affiliate with the CIO. The New York branch was especially militant, demanding employment of all artists by the federal government. Taking their cues from the sit-down strikes and picket lines in the Midwest, the New York Artists’ Union held violent demonstrations to protest the steady dismantling of WPA funding by the local administrator Colonel Brehon Somervell, who “had a profound conviction that to create ‘pictures’ was not ‘work.’”9
Some art workers worried that governmental oversight would rob aesthetic production of its transgressive status.
Artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s—working under distinctly different economic conditions—looked back to the 1930s as the moment of the most ardent championing of art and/as labor in the U.S. context. Robert Morris recollects a widespread interest in the Artists’ Union’s organizing efforts, citing Francis O’Connor’s recently published book Federal Support for the Visual Arts: The New Deal and Now (1969), which was circulated in the AWC.10 O’Connor used this study to make recommendations to the National Endowment for the Arts regarding federal funding: lauding the WPA, the report promoted state support for the arts and countered the prevailing wisdom that such a system would necessarily impose formal restrictions on artists. Encouraged by these findings, some AWC artists supported a wage system for artists, even as the artists proved difficult to organize in any systematic way. As Lippard admitted, “Advocates of a tighter structure, of a real dues-paying union, have reason but not reality on their side.”11 Some art workers worried that governmental oversight would rob aesthetic production of its transgressive status. While admiring the Artists’ Union for its solidarity and collective energy, Jim Hurrell, in an article for the Artworkers Newsletter entitled “What Happened to the Artist’s Union of the 1930s?” declared that the New Deal’s “sterile prerequisites” had defanged the art (even though, in fact, the WPA artists experienced some degree of artistic freedom in their projects).12 Few artists in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to return to making socialist realist works under the auspices of the state; instead they sought new forms of oppositional art that were in concert with, yet not subsumed under, their politics.
One of the legacies of Marx’s thought is his assertion that art is a mode of skilled production—a form of work—much like any other and as such is open to categories of analysis that attend to its production, distribution, and consumption. Within this rubric even purportedly “autonomous” abstraction practiced by artists of the 1940s and 1950s came under scrutiny by the art workers. As early as 1965, Barbara Rose stated that “art as a form of free expression is seen as a weapon in the Cold War.”13 The Left, haunted by the specter of Stalinism, had seen abstraction as one way out of doctrinaire socialist realism. By the early 1970s, however, in no small part because of the efforts of Max Kozloff, an AWC member, artists had become acutely aware of how avant-garde art in the United States had been made to serve state power abroad.14 According to these accounts, abstract expressionist artists, who, for some, embodied the romantic ideal of working free from the pressures of the market, had, however unwittingly, been marketed and sold as part of an ideological program in which the American government trumpeted artists’ freedom to create works seemingly unrelated to politics, in distinction to Soviet socialist realism. The Cold War era’s volatile entanglements of abstract form, ideology, and politics cast a lingering shadow on artists in the late 1960s, and some pursued “difficult” artistic practices that were consciously removed from “expression.” As witnesses to the morphing of culture into what Theodor Adorno termed “the culture industry,” art workers understood how their efforts could become caught up in regimes of commodification as well as in the larger machine of the military-industrial complex.15 In the face of this instrumentalization, some sought to assert art’s “unsaleability and functionlessness,” to quote Rose’s assessment of the radical promise of minimal art, while at the same time organizing as workers to puzzle through their shared role in protest culture.16
Debord drew upon Marx’s conceptions of how art is itself productive, for he understood aesthetics as formative to the education of the senses—art, that is, helps creates social subjects.
Thus the Vietnam War–era generation of leftist artists were influenced by numerous factors, including a rejection of previous forms of artistic labor within the United States. They were also aware—if unevenly—of contemporary international developments, not least the climate of radicalism of May 1968. As Guy Debord wrote about the Situationist International: “An international association of Situationists can be seen as a union of workers in an advanced sector of culture, or more precisely as a union of all those who claim the right to a task now impeded by social conditions; hence as an attempt at an organization of professional revolutionaries in culture.”17 Debord drew upon Marx’s conceptions of how art is itself productive, for he understood aesthetics as formative to the education of the senses —art, that is, helps creates social subjects. In fact, relatively recent translations of relevant texts by Marx emphasized the psychic effects of alienated labor, self-estrangement, and negation—useful concepts to apply to the psychologically dense act of producing art.18 One writer in 1973 provides a summary of Marx’s notions that circulated at the time: “The similarity between art and labor lies in their shared relationship to the human essence; that is, they are both creative activities by means of which man produces objects that express him, that speak for and about him. Therefore, there is no radical opposition between art and work.”19
As T. J. Clark noted in 1973, within the fine arts, “for many reasons, there are very few images of work.”20 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, representations of work were increasingly interesting to art historians like Clark. More to the point, the question of how artistic making might be understood as a category of labor was, when Clark was writing in the early 1970s, just beginning to be thought through with rigor via the new field of social art history.21 Much of the art examined in this book does not provide easy visual proof that the artist “works” and is instead somewhat resistant to such imaging, either because the labor in question is performed by other hands or because it is primarily mental. During the Vietnam War era, that is, many laboring artistic bodies were displaced: they yielded to the body of the viewer or to the body of the installer, or they were somewhat effaced in a move toward intellectual work.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the publication of English editions of texts by Antonio Gramsci, the writings of Debord, the importation of Frankfurt School writers such as Adorno and Marcuse, and the appearance of contemporary texts by Louis Althusser (both in French and in translation) also drove a reevaluation of how art and labor might be considered together.22 Marcuse in particular exerted considerable influence on art workers. In his early writings, he fostered a utopian conception of how work might function. He believed that once erotic energies were no longer sublimated, work would be transformed into play, and play itself would be productive: “If work were accompanied by a reactivation of pre-genital polymorphous eroticism, it would tend to become gratifying in itself without losing its work content.”23 Moreover, in the late 1960s Marcuse turned his attention to artistic making and often explicitly connected it to his ideas about work. In books such as An Essay on Liberation and Counterrevolution and Revolt, he saw the merging of art and work as the ultimate aim of any revolution.24
The class mobility conferred on artists makes for a complex story, and artists’ identification with, dependency on, and estrangement from the bourgeoisie are longstanding issues—for Renaissance art historians as well as for theorists of modern art. The artist’s ambiguous class position raises a series of questions about both art and work: How can art be a profession if there is no employer? To count as “work,” need the effort involved be paid? Need it be, as Harry Braverman has defined it in 1974, “intelligent and purposive”?25 What, then, does this mean for artists whose work goes, intentionally or not, unseen or unsold? Or is work simply, as Studs Terkel put it in 1972, “what people do all day”?26 Is “work” an activity, or is it a spatial designation, a place or site? And how does the art itself function—how does it produce meanings, representations, and social relations? What mode of production is art making, and how does it mediate between the political economy of exchanged goods and, to use Jean Baudrillard’s phrase, the “political economy of the sign”?27 That is, how does art, as an object and a system of signification, circulate as both commodity and sign?
Precisely these questions were at stake for artists in the 1960s and 1970s, along with others: How might art operate in and upon the public sphere, and how might it serve as a kind of political activity? What was new about the conception of the art worker was not only the turn away from an explicitly unified aesthetic but also the art workers’ almost single-minded focus on the art museum as their primary antagonist. Because artists in this period did not receive wages from a socialized state or a government program in any systematic way, they viewed the museum as the primary gatekeeper of power, prestige, and value.
By calling themselves art workers, artists in the late 1960s meant to move away from taints of amateurism (or unproductive play) and to place themselves in the larger arena of political activity. This is the connotation summoned by the British political theorist Carole Pateman in the definition of work she offers in her 1970 book Participation and Democratic Theory:
By “work” we mean not just the activity that provides for most people the major determinant of their status in the world, or the occupation that the individual follows full time and that provides him with his livelihood, but we refer also to activities that are carried on in co-operation with others, that are “public” and intimately related to the wider society and its (economic) needs; thus we refer to activities that, potentially, involve the individual in decisions about collective affairs, the affairs of the enterprise and of the community, in a way that leisure-time activities usually do not.28
Art is often understood as an essentially solitary, individual act, but Pateman’s term provides one way to configure a broader terminology for artistic identity; it also suggests that “leisure-time activities” are usually—but not always—opposed to art. Pateman’s definition of work is useful, especially as it encompasses questions of the public and of the collective.
While labor and work, as near-synonyms, are used somewhat interchangeably, it is important to recognize that they are not exact equivalents. Instructive evidence of the distinctions between the terms that operated in the late 1960s and early 1970s can be found in mainstream and scholarly texts on employment, trends in the workplace, managerial styles, and human production, from sociological studies, government reports, and congressional testimonies to trade paperbacks and business handbooks. In these texts work and labor are by no means transposable. Work refers to jobs and occupations in the broadest sense; labor designates organized labor or union politics. Two books from the era illustrate the point: one, titled Work in America, is a governmental report assessing employment trends, productivity, and worker satisfaction; the other, titled Labor in America, brings together conference papers regarding the challenges of unionization and the possibilities of raising class consciousness.29
As Raymond William notes, work stands in for general doing or making, as well as all forms of paid employment, while labor is more explicitly affiliated with the organization of employment under capitalism. As “a term for a commodity and a class,” labor denotes both the aggregate body of workers as a unit and “the economic abstraction of an activity.”30 Williams further comments on the slightly outmoded and highly specialized nature of labor; the Art Workers’ Coalition deployment of the phrase art worker, meant to signal class affiliations even as those affiliations were frequently disavowed, thus activated a much wider sphere of activity than art laborer and was used to encompass current concerns such as process and fabrication.
This quick sketch gestures to the multiplicity of meanings embedded within the conception of artistic labor and frames some of the theoretical discourses that fed the emergence of the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York City in 1969. The remainder of Art Workers examines how the notion of the “art worker” was transformed vis-à-vis minimalism, conceptualism, process art, and feminist criticism—both in light of the shift to postindustrialism and with regard to the anti-Vietnam War movement’s ambivalent relationship to the working class.
“Art versus Work” (excerpted from Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, University of California Press, 2009). The book can be ordered from www.ucpress.edu.